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The issue of transport lies at the very heart of human prosperity, productivity and well-being.

This has always been true, but amid the rapid acceleration of globalization, the movement of everything from people to food and natural resources has become a nexus issue, touching nearly every aspect of human life.

Under the leadership of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan has been making efforts within the U.N. and in other high-level international forums toward recognizing the concept of sustainable transportation as central to our shared prosperity, beginning with the Ashgabat Declaration of Sept. 4, 2014. The declaration led in turn to two U.N. resolutions on the topic, the most recent being 70/197, which was proposed by Turkmenistan and co-sponsored by 84 nations on Dec. 22, 2015, and read, “Towards comprehensive cooperation among all modes of transport for promoting sustainable multimodal transit corridors.”

To get a sense for the pivotal issue of transport, it is useful to consider the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 broad aims for humanity as a whole adopted in 2012 at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.

Close examination of these 17 SDGs and their specific targets reveals a connection among many of them with the issue of transportation, whether direct or indirect. SDG 10, “Reduce inequality within and among countries,” for example, would be impossible to approach without considering the role played by the movement of goods, resources and people.

As globalization becomes less a trend on the horizon and more a day-to-day reality, the way in which each nation approaches the planning of transportation infrastructure becomes crucially important, not just for the health and welfare of all people, but also for that of the planet itself — which is why the focus isn’t merely on transport, but on viable, connected and broadly adopted transport and information systems that can be sustained well into the future.

In light of the growing awareness of this issue worldwide, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat the Global Sustainable Transport Conference on Nov. 26 and 27. It brought together several heads of state and government, deputy prime ministers and foreign ministers, along with 42 ministers and vice ministers of transport and infrastructure, as well as about 200 representatives from business and civil society. Representatives from 10 intergovernmental organizations and 10 specialized agencies were in attendance, as was a delegation from Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

It was the first conference of its kind, and will be the last over which Ban presides in his position as U.N. secretary-general.

Paving the way

In his opening remarks at the conference, Ban cast the transport sector as a key driver of economic growth in the world, and outlined some of the many challenges on the “human side” of the matter. These challenges include problems of access for people with disabilities and those who live in rural or remote places; safety issues for women and girls; difficulties of securing the right financing for transport infrastructure projects; and the fact that “this sector is responsible for nearly a quarter of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions” worldwide, among others.

However, Ban was quick to acknowledge the value of working together on the world stage, and with this in mind, it is worth taking a deeper look at Turkmenistan, which hosted this landmark conference. On Oct. 15, the Parliament of Turkmenistan ratified the Paris Agreement on climate, and the country as a whole has been steadily working toward becoming a model of modern sustainable transport.

Turkmenistan sits in the southwest of central Asia, bordering Iran to the south, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the north, and Afghanistan to the southeast. The country is home to sections of the ancient Silk Road that connected Europe and the Middle East with China, a route that is even more important now than at any time in the past. On the southern edge of the massive Karakum Desert that occupies the country’s interior, at the foot of the Kopet Dag mountains, lies the thriving capital of Ashgabat, a modern marvel coated in white marble and studded with monuments that light up at night like jewels. Ashgabat is now in preparations to host the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games from Sept. 17 to 27, 2017.

Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves, which forms the backbone of its growing economy, and a wealth of other natural resources. In addition to conducting its own trade, Turkmenistan is a key conduit for the flow of goods, resources and services between other countries — meaning it is a critical stretch of the new Silk Road as well as the old. In light of this, the country has been exerting itself to bring its information and transportation infrastructure in line with international standards. The flow of trade in Turkmenistan stretches along both north-south and east-west corridors, and today evidence of the country’s commitment to sustainable transport is not hard to find.

For example, on Dec. 13, 2015, work began on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline, a natural gas conduit linking those countries that is slated to become operational by 2019, and for which expectations are high in the region.

Turkmenistan also seeks to expand its capacity for tourism, and to this end it completely redesigned and rebuilt its main air hub, Ashgabat International Airport, which was opened to the public on Sept. 17. Now the largest airport in Central Asia, it can serve as many as 14 million passengers and convey 200,000 tons of freight per year.

In the latest example of Turkmenistan’s progress, the first 85-kilometer section of a rail link that will join Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan was opened on Nov. 28, the day after the U.N. conference in Ashgabat finished.

Connecting Atamyrat in Turkmenistan with facilities in Akina, Afghanistan, the link is an exciting step in the shared effort toward not only an increased trade flow within Central Asia, but ultimately a more permanent and smooth economic link with Europe, India and China. On hand for the ceremony near the Ymamnazar border crossing between the two countries were Berdimuhamedov and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who together tightened a ceremonial golden bolt to open the line. Also on hand was a huge crowd of journalists, officials, business representatives and workers.

In a speech at the press event for the occasion, Berdimuhamedov welcomed the wave of change represented by the railway, vowing to “restart the great Silk Road and turn the country into a key transport hub to further progress the peace and welfare of the region.”

Although much work remains, it is clear that Turkmenistan is making significant progress in achieving a network of transport infrastructure that is sustainable and can dovetail with the emerging effort toward seamless networks on a global scale.

Conference conclusions

Over the two-day conference, numerous discussions took place on topics ranging from the challenges faced by landlocked counties to road safety, the climate crisis, resource mobilization, public-private partnerships and more.

Speaking to the press on the closing day of the conference, Under-Secretary-General of the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo said: “There is a consensus emerging from the discussions. Simply put, without sustainable transport, there will be no lasting progress on climate action; without sustainable transport, there will be no lasting progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.”

To the extent that the event focused the world’s attention on the example set by Turkmenistan as a nation striving toward sustainable transport, as well as the many challenges faced by all nations in realizing such a goal, the conference can rightly be called a success.

For more information, see sustainabledevelopment.un.org/Global-Sustainable-Transport-Conference-2016, or www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html

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